The FBI Is Afraid of Your Encryption

Sally Yates, left, and James Comey, right, testify during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Going Dark: Encryption, Technology, and the Balance Between Public Safety and Privacy" in Washington on July 8, 2015. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Federal law enforcement officials voiced concerns over public safety amid an ongoing dispute with tech companies over consumer use of encryption, which renders data unreadable without a key. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the subject in a session titled Going Dark: Encryption, Technology and the Balance Between Public Safety and Privacy.

"American citizens care deeply about privacy and rightly so," Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and FBI Director James Comey said in a joint statement delivered to the committee. They argued that companies' decision to encrypt communications without building in access—such as with Apple and Google's latest move to encrypt their devices by default—leaves law enforcement without the necessary investigative tools.

"We may not be able to identify and stop terrorists who are using social media to recruit, plan and execute an attack in our country," they warned. Though ISIS's conversations may begin on public platforms such as Twitter, they often move to encrypted platforms for further discussion. Even with a court order, they said, law enforcement cannot penetrate the encryption and access the parties' communications. Comey underscored the threat posed by being "left in the dark" when he revealed that more than 200 Americans have tried to join the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria.

When probed on a possible solution, the officials distanced themselves from the idea that they're calling for backdoor access, or a built-in entry-point that could be used by law enforcement agencies. The controversy behind the practice of building such access is best understood with a metaphor often used by technologists: if a key exists, anyone could use it to open the "door"— the company that built it, the U.S. government, a foreign government, or even a criminal.

Crypto reminder:
An encryption backdoor that only law enforcement can use is like a gun that can only shoot bad guys

— 🤔Jake Laperruque😒 (@JakeLaperruque) July 8, 2015

"Germans don't want an iPhone with an FBI front door or backdoor," Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist at the ACLU said in a previous interview with Newsweek, following Comey's first speech on the issue, when he called for similar access. "The fact that a U.S. court would be required to issue an order isn't going to be much comfort.… How can the FBI director come with this proposal without thinking about how this kind of change would undermine the sales of major U.S. companies?"

But Comey is unconvinced business would suffer. "I don't exactly know where the great demand for this is coming from," he said. "I haven't met ordinary folks who say, 'I really want a device that can't be opened even if an American judge finds it ought to be opened.'"

In their testimony, the two officials advocated for tech companies to voluntarily devise a solution that makes all parties happy. Technologists, however, overwhelmingly agree that backdoors fundamentally weaken security.

.@FBI Director Comey testified that USA technical experts have not given a “full, honest effort” to build secure backdoors for encryption.

— Alex Howard (@digiphile) July 8, 2015

Both officials made clear that a legislative solution was being considered. "We're not ruling out a legislative solution," said Yates. Comey added, "Maybe no one will have the incentive to be as creative as we need them to be without legislation."